A Village in the Wake of Tourism
Sideng Village, Shaxi Valley, Jianchuan County, Yunnan
“Your pants have holes in them. Give them to me tomorrow and I will sew them up.”
“No, no, it’s really okay, no need.”
“Not okay! I will sew them tomorrow and that’s final.”
So much for the trendsetting holes in my favorite pair of Express jeans. For my host mom, Mrs. Dao, the only reason for having holes in jeans is extreme wear and tear, and as a mother of twenty years it is her job to mend them.
Her own dirt-covered sweatpants and bright-pink “Prim Colectin“ sweater sport red, green and black patches, some of which are also tearing. Mrs. Dao is a nongmin, a farmer or peasant, and everyday she leaves home at five in the morning to till a small patch of land near home. She beats the earth for three solid hours, comes home to cook her husband and dying mother-in-law breakfast, after which she cleans, feeds the dog, pigs and chickens, and finally returns to the field until dinnertime. Such is the life of a nongmin not only in Shaxi valley, but all over China.
Shaxi valley holds over sixty picturesque towns and began to attract tourists when the Tea and Horse Trade Market Square in Sideng village became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the past decade, researchers from Switzerland have drawn maps of the village, restored the dance hall and Buddhist temples, and launched the Shaxi Restoration Project, which will improve agricultural irrigation, raise worker salaries, and launch industrialization, education and tourism projects.
Sideng is still a poor town and manages to keep its bucolic charm despite an increasing influx of both domestic and foreign tourists. I arrive as a foreign tourist, but with no high expectations. When I get off the mianbaoche (‘loaf-of-bread car’ or small van), I walk down a cobblestone street over one hundred years old and turn left onto a narrow alleyway bordered by troughs of flowing water. I find the Shaxi Culture Center where Mrs. Dao, my host mom, is waiting for me, unsmiling in a dirty beige baseball cap and her signature sweatpants.
“Ni ha-.” She speaks roughly and tends to leave off the ends of words.
“Hello Mrs. Dao, I am so glad to meet you!” I give her a smile to ease the tension of first-time meetings and language barriers. She looks at me severely, and in one motion hoists my pack onto her back and trots out the door. I hastily pick up my things and run after her, not wanting to get lost.
The Daos’ home is a large siheyuan, a courtyard surrounded by four buildings, centered on a well and pomegranate trees. One side of the home is for the dog, two pigs and dozen chickens. The other two sides are concrete platforms for cutting meat and drying rice during the harvest season. Bedrooms and the kitchen occupy the last side of the mud and concrete home. At first glance, I see broken windows, cloth curtains, washing bins, a small fire pit supporting a steel kettle of boiling water, and towels hanging on clotheslines tied to trees and wooden posts.
I see Mr. Dao for the first time as he clears his throat, hucks spit into the courtyard, and pulls a bucket of water up from the well. He turns around when his wife calls to him, sees me, and immediately smiles. He brings the water over to the kitchen and sits with me.
“Hello, what is your name?” He says in a perfect American accent. Mr. Dao loves to study in his spare time when he is not working in his bike repair shop. His hands are permanently stained with grease, and his fingernails have broken so many times they are disfigured and under-sized. We squat together, and I watch intently as he begins to scrape at a black stain on his thumb.
“My name is Feiya.” He repeats my name and welcomes me to the Dao home.
That night at dinner, Mrs. Dao speaks only in Bai dialect, which she knows I cannot understand. When our bowls are almost empty, Mr. Dao manages to squeeze in a few questions about Canada and my hometown before Mrs. Dao grabs my arm and orders me to sit with her mother-in-law in a tiny bedroom stuffed with couches, animal skins, and two wooden beds. She then leaves me alone with ‘nainai’.
I awkwardly turn to nainai and mention how lovely the sky looks in Shaxi; always a stark, cloudless blue. She looks at me for a moment, smiles, and nods. Silence returns and all I can hear is the influenza in her breathing. Five minutes later she turns to me and begins to speak quickly in Bai dialect. I, of course, cannot understand a word, but I obediently smile and nod. She seems satisfied enough so we return to silence. I turn to her again, wait until she looks at me, and then slowly say in standard Mandarin, “Nainai, have you always lived in Shaxi?” Another smile and nod. I am beginning to wonder why we can communicate but not have an actual conversation when Mrs. Dao walks in.
“She is very sick, you know. Her ears are not good either, she is basically deaf. So you can just smile and nod to show you have heard her.”
I could not hold back my laughter. Nainai had me completely fooled with her own amazing mastery of the smile and nod technique.
I stare at the Backstreet Boys and NSync posters on the wall, remnants of the Dao daughters who left for college years ago. I am beginning to recall my own pre-teen fascination with pop groups when suddenly a sharp wail pierces the countryside silence.
I hesitantly take a peek into the courtyard next door, but blackness engulfs me. A pungent smell reaches my nose. As I inch closer to the courtyard, I begin to make out two ropes holding a pig by its feet with its head hanging over a huge bucket full of blood. A large man is scraping the fur off the pig’s skin with a razor blade as his wife holds the carcass steady with one hand and a lantern with the other.
With no warning at all, the man takes his knife and decapitates the pig in one smooth motion. The head falls with a thump into the basin below, while the wife splits the pig’s side exposing the inside of the stomach. She skillfully empties the contents of the stomach and saves the sack for later use. Other organs are removed from the pig’s belly until the meat is ready to slice. The killing is quick and nothing is wasted.
Before sleep, Mrs. Dao orders me to wash. I sit on a stool and start to tentatively wash my hands and face.
“Wash your feet.” She practically yells at me in putonghua (standard Mandarin).
“Oh, okay so I should wash my hands, face and feet?” I say to clarify and avoid embarrassment.
“Yes. Face. Hands. Feet.”
I take off my shoes and socks and swing my feet into the basin of scalding hot water all too quickly. The basin goes flying, water sprays everywhere, chickens start clucking, the dog barks, I scream, and Mr. Dao runs to clean up the mess. Apologizing profusely, I turn to Mrs. Dao, ready for a scolding. Instead, tears are rolling down her face as she rocks on her stool, laughing uncontrollably.
“Don’t worry about it!” She says repeatedly. She grabs a towel and starts wiping off my hands and feet, refilling a basin for me and patting my head. I am befuddled, unable to explain her abrupt switch to motherly kindness. It was not until later that night that I realized the difference between a host family treating someone as a guest and accepting someone as a member of the family. I was Mrs. Dao’s daughter for three days. When I was at fault, she scolded me. When I made a mistake, she helped me learn from it with forgiveness. And when I did or said something good, she smiled and laughed. Every reaction to me was pure, innocent, and natural because she felt no need to put on a show for the foreign guest.
On my final night in Sideng, Mrs. Dao walks with me to a dance performance put on by locals who rehearse in their free time. I am standing next to her when my program director, Lu Yuan, asks her, “Lifu, will you ever go live with your daughters in Kunming or Dali when you are older?”
“No.” Mrs. Dao smiles and shakes her baseball-capped head. Her hands are in her pockets and she is swaying from side to side. She is positively adorable.
“Why not? Your daughters are studying in big cities, they cannot take over your land, so what will happen when you cannot farm anymore?”
“I will worry about it when the time comes.”
“Would your daughters farm?”
“No, I don’t want them to.”
“But you have worked so hard your whole life, what for if not to enjoy with your daughters when you are old?”
“I have suffered this life so that they do not have to farm, so that they can live in the cities.”
“And you definitely do not want to live with them?”
“I can’t live in the city. It is peaceful here. This is my home.”
“What will you do when development happens and this town becomes a tourist center like Lijiang?”
“But it might, Lifu.”
“No, no it won’t.” She adamantly shakes her head and changes the subject, not wanting to hear anymore. My throat tightens. Nongmin like her were already uprooted in Lijiang and countless other towns in China. As we stand there in the light of a dozen lanterns, I am overcome with a sense of appreciation for this fleeting moment.